Thursday, November 05, 2015

What They Really Think of Us (Swiss Version) - Novartis CEO Would Not Commit to Changing Company Behavior After Latest of Multiple Legal Settlements

The huge corporations which now dominate global health care are creating amazing records of repeated ethical misadventures.  We last discussed multinational Swiss based pharmaceutical manufacturer Novartis' escapades in early 2014.   Since then, the legal settlements and other legal findings just keep on coming, capped with a big one in late October, 2015.

We will summarize them in chronological order.

Japanese Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry Found that Novartis Concealed Serious Adverse Effects

In August, 2014, per the Japan Times, but apparently not reported widely outside of that country.

Novartis Pharma K.K. said it has failed to report at least 2,579 cases of serious side effects to the health ministry, including one that was fatal, related to its drugs for leukemia and other diseases, although employees were aware of the problems.

Of the total, 1,313 cases were related to Glivec and 514 to Tasigna, both drugs for leukemia treatment. Another 261 cases involved Afinitor, a cancer drug, the Japanese unit Swiss drug giant Novartis AG said Friday.

The findings were reported to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry the same day.

The marketing staff at Novartis Pharma recognized the side effects but failed to report them to the division in charge, breaking the drug firm’s internal rules, Novartis Pharma said. They were not fully aware of the importance of the problem and higher-ranking officials failed to supervise them properly, it said.

In February, per the PharmaLot blog, the Ministry decided to suspend the company for 15 days, after having issued a business improvement order to it.  More details of Novartis' problems in Japan can be found in the Japan Times.  I cannot find anything to suggest any one in a position of leadership at Novartis faced any negative consequences as a result, however.

Note that by allegedly hiding adverse effects of its drugs, it is possible that the company's alleged actions led doctors and patients to believe the drugs were safer than they really are, possibly leading to overuse of the drugs and resulting in even more adverse effects.  I did not see a discussion of possible patient harm in the discussion of this case.

Novartis Executive Pleads Guilty to Bribing Polish Official

In October, 2014, per a short Reuters (UK) article, and apparently not mentioned elsewhere,

An executive at a pharmaceutical company in Poland who pleaded guilty in a bribery case involving improper payment, works for Novartis, the Swiss drugmaker said on Thursday.

Poland's anti-corruption bureau said on Tuesday two women had appeared in court in a case in which a health fund official was given a tourist trip worth more than $1,000 (620.67 pounds) in exchange for backing the sale of a particular drug.

Both defendants pleaded guilty....

The drug involved was not clear, and the company suggested this was an individual act ("the enquiry relates to an individual and the company is not part of the enquiry.")  Why an individual would do something like this if not to advance her career is not clear, however.  I cannot find any followup coverage of this, nor anything to suggest the supervisors of the executives involved faced any negative consequences.

Again, by bribing an official to promote a particular drug, this case could have led to overuse of the drug, and potentially to patient harm from the drug's adverse effects. 

Novartis Subsidiary Sandoz Settles Allegations that it Misrepresented Pricing Data to US Medicaid

In March, 2015, per the PharmaLot blog,

In what the federal government says is the largest such settlement ever reached, Sandoz has agreed to pay $12.64 million to resolve allegations that it misrepresented pricing data on medicines that were provided to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Sandoz, which is owned by Novartis and markets hundreds of generic drugs in the U.S., allegedly misrepresented the average sales price data to Medicare between January 2010 and March 2012, according to a statement from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

A Novartis spokeswoman writes that the drug maker did not admit to any liability or wrongdoing. 'Sandoz continues to be committed to providing high-quality, affordable medicines to U.S. patients and conducting business with customers and the government with integrity.' As part of the settlement, Sandoz agreed to provide certification that it established a government pricing compliance program.

As the OIG explains, Medicare uses the pricing data to set payments for most drugs covered under Medicare Part B....

Again, no one who authorized, directed or implemented any price misrepresentation faced any negative consequences.  Futhermore, as often occurs in US cases, the company did not admit any wrongdoing, and provided the usual public relations boilerplate about upholding the highest principles, the allegations leading to the settlement notwithstanding.

Express Scripts Settles Allegations that it Accepted Kickbacks from Novartis

In May, 2015, also per the PharmaLot blog,

Express Scripts  has agreed to pay $60 million to resolve allegations by U.S. authorities that a business unit participated in a kickback scheme with Novartis that caused federal health care programs to pay for a medicine based on false claims, according to court documents and a regulatory filing.

The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Novartis offered patient referrals to Accredo Health Group, which is a specialty pharmacy run by Express Scripts, in exchange for bolstering refills of Exjade, a drug used for reducing excess iron in patients who undergo blood transfusions....

Apparently other lawsuits involving allegations of Novartis payments to other pharmacies are pending. Note that the events alleged in some of these proceedings may have occurred while Novartis was already subject to a so-called corporate integrity agreement,

a key issue to watch is the extent to which a so-called Corporate Integrity Agreement that Novartis signed in 2010 factors into the proceedings. These agreements typically run for five years and require a company to establish an internal compliance program and report violations.

At the time that Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney in New York, announced the lawsuits against Novartis two years ago, he called the drug maker a 'repeat offender,' and the lawsuits noted that the violations alleged in the litigation took place before and after the CIA was signed.

Note that the settlement was with Express Scripts, although it involved allegations of misbehavior by Novartis.  Note also that this settlement throws into doubt one mechanism now widely used by law enforcement in the US to settle cases involving big corporations, the corporate integrity agreement or defererred prosecution agreement.  These are agreements made by corporations not to behave badly again.  Yet this case may yet demonstrate that these agreements do not deter future bad behavior.

Again, so far, this settlement did not involve any negative consequences for who may have authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior either at Express Scripts or Novartis.

Novartis Settles US Allegations of Kickbacks to Enhance Sales of Multiple Drugs

In late October, 2015, a larger settlement, at least in monetary terms, of related issues was announced, per Reuters,

Novartis agreed in principle to pay $390 million to settle U.S. allegations that it used kickbacks to speciality pharmacies to push sales of some drugs, the Swiss company said on Tuesday, hitting third-quarter earnings.

Since this case involved hundreds of millions dollars, it got a bit more coverage than the others.  For example, Bloomberg provided some more specifics,

The payment covers all claims related to the medicines Myfortic, Exjade, Tasigna, Gleevec and TOBI, the company said. The U.S. had sought as much as $3.3 billion from Novartis for Exjade and Myfortic claims, claiming it had referred patients to specialty pharmacies and paid kickbacks in the form of rebates to get those pharmacies to recommend the drugs to patients and to increase sales.

It is customary in such settlements for them to allow the accused corporation to avoid any admission of guilt, often with some statement that the corporation neither confirms or denies the allegations.  In this latest cast, however, while the company issued the usual "neither confirm nor deny" statement, the Novartis CEO appeared to want to deny the allegations despite his willingness to pay so many millions to get them behind him, as per Reuters,

Chief Executive Joe Jimenez told reporters Novartis had made the disputed payments to ensure patients took their drugs, including treatments to prevent rejection of transplanted organs, but U.S. government attorneys disagreed.

'It's something we just believe we want to put behind us,' Jimenez said. Novartis said it neither admitted nor denied liability as part of the settlement.
How the payments or rebates to the pharmacies had anything to do with improving patient adherence is not clear.  Mr Jiminez's expertise in improving patient adherence is similarly not clear.  Per his official company biograpphy, his education was limited to business school, and before becoming a Novartis executive, he ran the Heinz company, makers of the famous ketchup (look here and here).  

Note that if, despite the protestations of the CEO to the contrary, the effect of the company's alleged actions was to over-promote use of the drugs, the results could have been excess adverse effects for patients. 

Furthermore, and despite this possibility, per the Wall Street Journal, the CEO also seemed unwilling to agree that the company would change any of its practices beyond paying the money,

Chief Executive Joe Jimenez said the rebates were designed to induce specialty pharmacies to ensure that patients completed a course of medicine. He added that Novartis still used this 'quite common' practice at specialty pharmacies in the U.S.

'We continue to maintain that specialty pharmacies must continue to play a role in ensuring patient adherence,' he said. 'How that is going to play out as to whether we change our behavior or not remains to be seen.'
This suggests that CEO Jiminez really thinks that the company should pay the money and then continue doing what it pleases, based on the rationale that the payments to or discounts given pharmacies were meant to improve patient adherence, not oversell the drugs.  This may reflect what he really thinks of what his company ought to be doing for, or to us, that is to or for the patients who take the drugs it manufactures. 

 Nonetheless, a public relations release tried to make those comments inoperative.

Some media coverage did not accurately reflect our position and the seriousness of the Company's commitment to working with the government to ensure our behaviors and interactions with specialty pharmacies meet the highest ethical standards. As such, we want to emphasize the following points:

Novartis will make detailed admissions of fact concerning the Government’s allegations as part of the final settlement.

Any reports suggesting that we are not addressing the Government’s concerns or the particular issues on which the litigation focused was not intended by the Company.

We remain committed to working with the government on corporate integrity obligations, including those relating to specialty pharmacies, and conducting our business in an ethical manner that is fully compliant with the law.

We await the statement of facts.  Maybe this statement will prove true, but given that the original statement came from the CEO, to whom the PR people who wrote the satement report, perhaps CEO and former purveyor of ketchup Jiminez meant what he said.  As noted in the Modern Healthcare blog,

Patrick Burns, co-director of the Taxpayers Against Fraud Education Fund, a not-for-profit funded by whistle-blowers and law firms that represent them, said he remains skeptical of the company's intentions.

Burns said Jimenez's original statements smack of disrespect for the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. attorney general.

'It's a level of arrogance and ignorance which is jaw-dropping,' Burns said. 'You have the CEO coming out and brazenly saying we will not even change our practice. I think this really is the time for the attorney general to show her teeth.'

We also await any such dental findings. 


This set of misadventures are just the latest in a long series by Novartis.  In March, 2014, we noted:
- Italian authorities had fined Novartis and Roche for colluding to promote the use of an expensive opthamologic treatment
- the NY Times published interviews with physicians ostensibly showing how Novartis turned them into marketers for the drug Starlix
- Japanese investigators charged Novartis with manipulating clinical research
- Indian regulators canceled a Novartis import license, charging the company with fraud.

Also,  in 2013, Novartis was fined for anti-competitive practices in its marketing of Fentanyl by the European Commission (look here), and in 2011 its Sandoz subsidiary settled allegations of misreporting prices in the US for $150 million (look here)   Other Novartis misadventures from 2010 and earlier appear here.  So Novartis has quite an impressive, if not infamous record of ethical failures.

Nonetheless, the march of its legal cases continues.  Furthermore, after the latest case, the Novartis CEO suggested that he saw no clear need for the company to change its ways, even though his PR people later tried to recast his statements.

So we see that the big health care organizations which now dominate health care globally continue to misbehave, and current legal efforts centering on settlements and fines seem to do nothing to deter continued misbehavior.  Maybe it is time to end the impunity of the corporate managers who have become rich while such behavior continues on their watch.  Modern Healthcare quoted Mr Burns as saying

the financial penalty in this case didn't seem to be enough to fix the problem. He believes the government needs to begin excluding executives such as Jimenez from federal healthcare programs in order to better get its message across that such behavior won't be tolerated.

In the new PharmaLot blog, Ed Silverman was hopeful that things may really be getting ready to change. He first noted, as we have done many times previously,

Over the years, a parade of drug companies has reached settlements, mostly for paying physicians to favor their medicines or illegally marketing products. Rarely, though, do executives suffer any consequences.


Mostly, the federal government resorts to large fines, even though countless people may have been prescribed medicines unnecessarily — at great expense and sometimes great harm. And drug makers simply treat these penalties as a cost of doing business. The failure to come down harder is sadly reminiscent of the recent financial crisis in which most heads of the biggest banks escaped unscathed.

Lately, however, there are signs the government might be changing its approach toward recalcitrant executives, and such a move is long overdue. After all, if individuals are not held accountable, the senior officials who run these companies have little incentive to play by the rules.

One can only hope, I suppose.  But to conclude as I have so many times before....

There seems to be increasing recognition that the continuing rise in US health care costs is unsustainable, and that these costs are not buying us good health care.  There are calls to avoid unnecessary, and sometimes harmful care.  Yet there is a persistent disconnect between how continuing dishonest behavior by health care organizations, impunity of their leaders, and lack of accountability by their board members fuel rising costs, shrinking access, and bad outcomes for patients.

To truly reform health care, we will have to at least recognize the causes of the current dysfunction.  Recognizing how health care dysfunction is created by unaccountable, dishonest leadership should lead to true reform that would promote well-informed, honest, accountable leadership that puts patients' and the public's health ahead of personal gain.  

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